When a U.S. Marine Corps task force sent nearly all of its 2,400 personnel ashore in Jordan in June, Marine officials said it had nothing to do with the horrific civil war in neighboring Syria. Turns out, that's half right: While the Marines were in Jordan for long-planned training exercise with the Jordanian military, their commander on the ground expected to be call on to intervene in the crisis by assisting the tens of thousands of refugees who had flooded across the border into Jordan.
Col. Matthew St. Clair, the commander of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, acknowledged that point during an appearance Thursday at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank in Arlington, Va. The colonel admitted it was a surprise his Marines were not called on to assist the refugees -- just one more sign of how close the United States was earlier this year to intervening in the Syrian civil war.
"I thought that exercise would turn into something else, but it did not," St. Clair said. "The exercise stayed focused on the exercise's objectives, and continuing to expand and build our partnership with the Jordanian armed forces."
The training exercise, known as Eager Lion, occurred from June 9 to 20 in Jordan, as the war in Syria continued to push thousands of refugees out of the country and into Jordan, Lebanon and other nearby nations. More than 100,000 of them settled in Jordan, a key U.S. ally in the region. St. Clair's unit deployed in March deployed in March along with the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, and were well aware of the carnage before they left.
"During our pre-deployment training, we looked very closely at the refugee and humanitarian crisis that was occurring in Jordan based off the conditions in Syria," St. Clair said. "We put a lot of time and effort into how we would do a humanitarian assistance-type operation."
The colonel did not say why they didn't get involved. Eager Lion incorporated some 8,000 troops from about 19 countries, including the U.S. Marines and sailors. At the time, the U.S. military tamped down on the possibility of U.S. forces getting involved in any operation involving Syrian refugees, while acknowledging they had unloaded a large portion of the unit's equipment to conduct bilateral training with the Jordanians.
"Our participation is not related to anything in Syria, as we've been planning our participation since the last [training exercise] ended with the 24th MEU," Capt. Lucas Burke, a Marine Corps spokesman for the unit, said at the time.
The U.S. forces returned to their ships late in June, and were quickly pulled into a variety of other missions, including embassy reinforcement operations in Egypt and Yemen, St. Clair said. Still, questions about Syria continued to loom large for the unit as U.S. officials in Washington openly discussed the possibility of strikes on military targets in Syria in August, after evidence emerged that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons on civilians.
The widely held assumption was that if President Obama approved an attack, it would be limited to cruise missiles fired from Navy ships or air strikes. Still, if air operations were approved, it raised the possibility that St. Clair's Marines would be needed to rescue a downed pilot or his aircraft. The skill, known as the tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel, or TRAP, was used in 2011 to collect an Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle pilot who ejected over Libya before his jet crashed. St. Clair said he could have flown CH-53 helicopters off the amphibious ship San Antonio or MV-22 Ospreys off the larger Kearsarge to do the mission if needed.
"We looked at that, as well other regional reactions to those strikes, if the strikes were to occur," St. Clair said. "Would that require embassy reinforcement for different countries throughout the region? We weren't just focused on Syria, but other countries and the regional reaction."
That became unnecessary, of course, when Obama backpedaled about the need for strikes in Syria in September. The Marines and sailors returned to the United States in November.
Defense Department photo